Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Why it makes no sense to criminalize fathers who can’t pay child support—and why we should support prosecutors who recognize that

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Why it makes no sense to criminalize fathers who can’t pay child support—and why we should support prosecutors who recognize that

  • The Power of Sheriffs: An Explainer

  • Scott Dozier dead in an apparent suicide on Nevada’s death row

  • Federal judge finds that Virginia prison fails to provide basic standard of medical care

  • An editorial agenda that includes calling for more ‘evenhanded justice’

  • Calling on prosecutors to end fines and fees that penalize poverty

In the Spotlight

Why it makes no sense to criminalize fathers who can’t pay child support—and why we should support prosecutors who recognize that

Last week, Wesley Bell, the newly elected chief prosecutor of St. Louis County issued a memo of interim policies. Bell, a former Ferguson, Missouri, City Council member and former public defender, ran on a progressive platform to address policies that drive mass incarceration and unseated seven-term incumbent Robert McCullough. Among the proposed interim policies is one to largely end prosecutions for nonpayment of child support. [Joel Currier / St. Louis Post-Dispatch] The policy states that the office “will not criminally prosecute the failure to pay child support” and line prosecutors “will not issue criminal cases or apply for summons or warrants for failure to pay child support.” In pending cases, line prosecutors will not proceed with cases or “attempt to accept any plea/finding of guilt for any felony or misdemeanor failure to pay child support, regardless of amount of arrears, without written approval from a supervisor.”

Local papers reported that after the announcement, Bell’s office immediately heard complaints regarding the new policy on child support prosecutions. Among those complaining was the local police union, which wasted little time in objecting to the decriminalization of nonpayment. [Ray Preston and Andrew McMunn / KMOV4]

Bell pointed out that the criminalization of nonpayment can make it even harder for parents under a child support order to make payments. “When you have two people applying for a job who are similarly situated, and one has a felony conviction even if it’s just for child support, we’d be lying if we said that didn’t hurt people’s chances of being successful at getting a job,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nor, Bell pointed out, does it help custodial parents. “They don’t want the noncustodial parent to go to jail. They just want the support,” he said. [Christine Byers / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

A 2006 study in nine states found that 70 percent of those ordered to pay child support are poor. The Urban Institute found that the average child support obligation constitutes over 80 percent of the parents’ income. While President Barack Obama was in office, the problem of child support obligations on parents unable to pay, particularly those unable to pay because they are incarcerated, received national attention. [J.B. Wogan / GoverningGiven that people earn cents on the hour during the prison jobs, child support arrears often significantly increase while people are in prison. Over 20 percent of people in prison have child support obligations. The Urban Institute notes that there is limited demographic data on noncustodial fathers ordered to pay child support but that studies have estimated that low-income noncustodial parents are disproportionately Black. Black fathers, in turn, are more likely to face labor market discrimination. [Eleanor Pratt / Urban Institute]

A majority of states across the country had policies allowing for reductions in child support payments, though in most states a parent had to affirmatively prove that they were incarcerated and apply for a reduction. The Marshall Project reported on the problem so many face, including one man from Ferguson, of leaving prison and then facing thousands of dollars in accrued child support debt. The federal government, in the final months of the Obama administration, issued new regulations that reclassified incarceration as “involuntary,” allowing parents to seek a pause in child support payments while incarcerated. [Eli Hager / The Marshall Project]

So far, it seems that the Trump administration will allow that measure to stay in place. However, the White House has expressed support for a requirement that criminal justice agencies notify child support enforcement agencies when someone leaves prison so that the requirement that they pay goes back into effect. Criminal convictions as a result of an inability to pay only further depress a person’s chances of getting a job. Bell pointed out that St. Louis County has an unusually high rate of prosecutions for child support nonpayment relative to the rest of the state. “St. Louis City is less than 40 a year. St. Louis County is close to 530 in 2017. We’re getting in line with the rest of the state,” he told KMOV. [Ray Preston and Andrew McMunn / KMOV4]

Bell’s interim policies for St. Louis County reflect the understanding that children benefit from noncustodial parents having the ability to earn and make payments. “I don’t believe in debtors’ prisons,” Bell said. “And opportunities are lost by felony convictions. We want people to have good paying jobs so they can take care of their families.” [Christine Byers / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

Stories From The Appeal


Illustration by Hisashi Ohkawa

The Power of Sheriffs: An Explainer. The Trump years will be known for many things, but one of them most likely will be the growing visibility of sheriffs as they rise from the local crime pages to the national stage. The Appeal explains the role of sheriffs in law enforcement.  [Jessica Pishko]

Stories From Around the Country

Scott Dozier dead in an apparent suicide on Nevada’s death row: Scott Dozier, whose execution by the state of Nevada was halted in response to challenges to the use of certain drugs for lethal injection, was found dead in his cell on death row. Dozier had given up appeals of his sentence but continued to challenge the method state officials intended to use and courts twice blocked his scheduled execution. The Department of Corrections spokesperson reported Saturday that Dozier’s death was from an apparent hanging. Dozier had made multiple suicide attempts in his decade on death row, after he was sentenced in 2007, and had said he would rather be executed than spend the rest of his life in prison. He challenged the state’s treatment of him, arguing that his placement on suicide watch, in isolation, with no access to outdoor recreation time or reading materials, no communication with his family, and little access to legal counsel, was harming him. According to the corrections department, he was not on suicide watch when he died. [Ken Ritter / Associated Press]

Federal judge finds that Virginia prison fails to provide basic standard of medical care: A federal judge issued an injunction last Wednesday, requiring a Virginia women’s prison to take immediate steps to improve the quality of medical care provided to incarcerated people. The ruling came in a lawsuit originally filed six years. Four women have died at Fluvanna Correctional Center since then. In two cases, oxygen was not available as the women were dying—even though the second death was just days after the first, when the need for oxygen supplies was known. The injunction requires, among other steps, that the prison place oxygen in every housing building and review any future deaths for failures in care. Judge Norman Moon had approved a settlement agreement between the plaintiffs and the prison in 2016 but three years later, he wrote, the prison continued to fall below constitutional standards. “The Settlement Agreement does not set an Olympic bar for Defendants. It does not require FCCW to be the Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins Hospital,” he wrote. It “simply imposes very basic medical standards and tasks that will bring medical care to an adequate level.” [Rachel Weiner / Washington Post]

An editorial agenda that includes calling for more ‘evenhanded justice’: The editorial board of the Oregonian issued its 2019 agenda and criminal justice is one of the four areas the board says will be a focus in its editorials for the year ahead. It identified three topics. The first is the need for Oregon to end nonunanimous jury verdicts, which allow guilty verdicts in most felony trials if only 10 out of 12 voters voted to convict. Louisiana ended its system of nonunanimous verdicts last year, leaving Oregon “with the shameful distinction as the last remaining state in the nation” to allow the practice. The second is the treatment of young people charged with certain crimes as adults and the resulting exposure to harsh mandatory minimum sentences, which ignores the widening understanding of young people’s development. And finally, the board says it continues “to wait for the conversation about the need for the death penalty” that a moratorium enacted by the previous governor was meant to prompt. [The Oregonian Editorial Board]

Calling on prosecutors to end fines and fees that penalize poverty: Miriam Krinsky of Fair and Just Prosecution and Lisa Foster of the Fines and Fees Justice Center call on prosecutors to use their powers to address unjust fines and fees. “Prosecutors … should speak out about the injustices those costs cause,” they say, and “should advocate aggressively for assessing fines and fees on a sliding scale, ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees, and eliminating fines and fees for children and young people.” And since fines and fees are often used to fund the court systems on the backs of a jurisdiction’s poorest residents, they write that “prosecutors should also find alternative mechanisms to fund courts fully and fairly.” They point out some of the most egregious charges—like fees for public defenders in 43 states and fines imposed on youth for skipping school—and highlight the efforts of some prosecutors to divert people from court and the associated costs, make diversion programs free, and create programs that restore driver’s licenses and reduce prosecution for driving with a suspended license. [Miriam Krinsky and Lisa Foster / USA Today]  

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

The Appeal in Your Inbox

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.